Despite the fact that the term “transcending genre” has perhaps itself already become a cliché, at least in film discussion, the fact nevertheless remains that much like certain filmmakers, there also exists in music select bands and artists that treat adhering to genre orthodoxy like an afterthought. Much like say, David Lynch or the late Andrzej Zulawski or Nicolas Roeg put their various influences through their own unique filters resulting in works so entirely singular, and at times innovative, very few comparisons can be drawn, the same can be said of the likes of Tom Waits, Frank Zappa or Kate Bush, artists whose earliest foundations may have been built upon identifiable genres but would eventually construct much more oblique additions. While there is certainly no shortage of bands with rock and metal foundations that have evolved throughout the years into more amorphous beings, it is perhaps the Melvins who have remained the most fascinating and ever-forward-thinking group of genre-defying iconoclasts, although ironically their name has come to be associated with specific styles throughout their career.
Formed in 1983 in Montesano, Washington by a trio of high school friends with Buzz Osborne (AKA King Buzzo) at the helm, the core of the Melvins was truly formed with the addition of drummer Dale Crover later that year with Osborne and Crover being the heart and soul of the Melvins with a who’s who of bassists coming and going throughout the years. Initially inspired by the hardcore punk scene, Osborne and co. would quickly find themselves outliers amongst the punks upon taking inspiration from the antagonistic and noisy likes of Flipper and the second side of Black Flag’s seminal 1984 album My War, notorious at the time for the band’s audacity to slow the tempo to a Black Sabbath-esque crawl, an act of blasphemy for many punks. The Melvins took the side two of My War approach even further, playing even slower than most doom metal bands of the time and tuning the guitars even lower. This fusion of hardcore punk belligerence with the tempo and oppressive weight of doom metal on the Melvins early records is what got the band branded as the godfathers of what would become known as “sludge metal” with many an important band associated with the subgenre citing the Melvins as a key influence, most notably New Orleans’ Eyehategod and Crowbar, two pioneering bands in their own right. Given the timeline and their pacific northwest home address, it seemed almost pre-destined that the Melvins would also be christened major forefathers of the Seattle “grunge” movement, the band having strong ties with several leading bands and figures associated with that scene, most prominently Kurt Kobain, the Nirvana frontman making his love of the Melvins, one of his favorite bands no less, no secret.
However, even at their earliest, most primitive stages where the reference points were perhaps a little more clearly drawn and the “sludge” and “grunge” tags more applicable than on other releases, the Melvins were already displaying an experimental streak and were a remarkably tricky band to pin down, jarring listeners with tracks that could range from pummeling six-minute dirges to almost math rock-esque exercises that lasted a little over a minute, often changing styles mid-song. Additionally, the band’s overall presentation set them apart from others in the punk/punk adjacent underground right from the start. If the band name the “Melvins” (named after a grocery store employee loathed by Osborne) wasn’t enough of an indication that this was a slightly different band, the Melvins also brought with them surreal humor, warped artwork, nonsensical album titles like the title of their debut full-length album Gluey Porch Treatments, song titles like “Steve Instant Newman”, “Exact Paperbacks” and “Bitten Into Sympathy” and Osborne’s incomprehensible lyrics. Over 30 years after the release of Gluey Porch Treatments and the band remains as chameleonic, with no two releases sounding exactly the same, each new album offering a surprise in sound, and even when the band turns to their own past for inspiration the results are consistently ripe and idiosyncratic as ever.
Equally idiosyncratic is the career trajectory of director Gregory Dark. A graduate of Stamford University with a background in conceptual art, Dark first entered the film industry, more specifically the adult film industry through documentaries. While shooting the documentary Fallen Angels (1985) which centered on the adult business in LA, Dark had a eureka moment and decided that with his background he could shoot an adult film better than any of the people he was covering in Fallen Angels. After tag-teaming with producer Walter Gernert from legendary adult distribution label VCA who subsequently dubbed himself “Walter Dark”, the two became the “Dark Brothers” and Dark would eventually prove himself right, essentially revolutionizing the adult film genre. Much like Stephen “Rinse Dream” Sayadian had done a few years prior with films like Nightdreams (1981) and Cafe Flesh (1982), Dark’s films presented an entirely new form of the adult feature with their surreal narratives and production design, contemporary soundtracks, performers who strayed from the accepted look of adult starts of the day and their incendiary attitudes with Dark shattering nearly every content taboo imaginable in films like Let Me Tell Ya ‘Bout White Chicks (1984), New Wave Hookers (1985) and The Devil in Miss Jones 3: A New Beginning & 4:The Final Outrage (1986) to name but a few. Dark continued to direct hardcore throughout the ’80s as well as find time to helm two sci-fi/action vehicles, Dead Man Walking (1988) and Street Asylum (1990), but would reinvent himself in the early ’90s in the softcore realm, becoming one of the “in house” directors for direct-to-video genre specialists Axis Films International, another venture involving Gernert. Beginning with Carnal Crimes (1991), Dark found himself at the fore of the erotic thriller/noir boom that would dominate the early 90’s, delivering some of the finest and most iconic DTV titles in the genre such as the Secret Games (1992-1994) and Animal Instincts (1992-1996) trilogies, the Mirror Images (1992-93) films and Night Rhythms (1992) to name a few, usually directed under the “Gregory Hippolyte” nom de plume or a variation of it (A. Gregory Hippolyte, Gregory Alexander Hippolyte, Gregory H. Brown, etc…).
By 1996, both the Melvins and Dark found themselves at a bit of a crossroads. The Melvins released Stag on July 15th of that year. Their eighth studio album, Stag was the final album of a three-album run with major label Atlantic Records, a strange relationship in hindsight but at the same time a prime example of the mainstream’s flirtation with anything with an “alternative” or “underground” tag attached following the grunge breakthrough (see also Earache Records brief partnership with Columbia). The band nonetheless rode the major label train as long as it lasted, 1993’s Houdini remains the band’s most well-known album, and 1994’s follow-up Stoner Witch being another shining jewel in the band’s crown. The odd record out of the three, Stag is undoubtedly one of the strangest albums ever released by a major label. One of the bands most experimental efforts to date, Stag was yet another instance of the Melvins taking a different musical path with every track, offering everything from pummeling sludge with sitar (“The Bit”) to country-rock that segues into ambient (“Black Bock”), piercing noise metal (“Googles”) and even chipmunk vocals (“Skin Horse”). A brilliantly made and endlessly rewarding album for adventurous listeners, Stag also remains a divisive listen for many fans of the Melvins’ more straightforward material and wasn’t the first or last time the Melvins would test the patience of even their own fanbase.
1996 also saw Dark coming to the end of a distribution relationship with VCA who had produced and released all his adult features since 1984. However, the year would nevertheless be a fruitful one for Dark. Forming his own production line, Dark Works, and securing distribution through John Stagliano’s equally legendary Evil Angel, Dark’s hardcore work would become increasingly more experimental and difficult than before, eventually doing away with narrative altogether in favor of a fourth-wall-breaking, almost interactive style of avant-garde adult filmmaking. Dark’s aesthetic remained as bizarre and colorful as in his 80’s hardcore films but the approach was considerably more raw, even psychological, and the tone of the features was crasser and even potentially distressing to some with Dark deliberately testing the comfort levels of the adult video viewing public, subverting the adult video formula even further with features like Snake Pit (1996) and the Shocking Truth (1996-97) videos. 1996 was also the year Dark bowed out of the softcore arena as well, his final film in the genre Animal Instincts: The Seductress (1996) being a radical departure from his previous erotic films, having more in common visually with the experimental hardcore work he was doing at the time than his previous softcore work. Simply by virtue of being “friends with some friends of theirs” and Osborne’s [i] as Dark told Ashley West of The Rialto Report, Dark was asked to direct the music video for “Bar-X the Rocking M”, the third track off Stag, an ideal decision for both the Melvins and Dark that found the band and director’s mutually odd muses to be perfectly simpatico and Dark taking an entirely new career path after the fact.
A voodoo priest opens a coffin-shaped door revealing the band playing in an immaculately decorated chamber surrounded by nuns, skeleton men, and an angel marching in a zombified state. Voodoo is immediately established as the dominant influence on the video with the band obviously playing a Gregory Dark take on a voodoo ceremony and various bits of other voodoo-esque and religious paraphernalia featuring as background decoration in various flash shots throughout the video. Shots which also feature devil men and men in full chicken and pig suits, the later of which tortures Osborne, all of which were visual staples of Dark’s hardcore work with grotesque masks and costumes featuring heavily in his adult films, particularly around that time. Dark had been incorporating voodoo based imagery since his first pair of Devil in Miss Jones sequels, a fascination of his since childhood brought on by his mysterious father, an anthropologist who apparently disappeared in Haiti and would sing the young Dark French voodoo songs [ii]. There is more than a hint of voodoo in a plot device in Dark’s outrageous Sex Freaks (1996) and the voodoo priest that opens the “Bar-X” video and later plays the song’s trombone solo in the video, is highly reminiscent of a similar character played by adult performer Mr. Marcus in Dark’s Flesh (1996) in a scene with similar production design as the “Bar-X” video. The band themselves becomes zombies, albeit in a much more western, traditional, as opposed to the classic voodoo sense, at the videos mid-point, rising from the sand wearing classic gimmick sci-fi glasses and are later seen playing a strange card game on a railroad track, rubber skeletons being the prize. Despite the track itself being rather brisk with a length of only 2:24, Dark had been continuously refining the pioneering style of editing that would become associated with music videos in his adult films, giving every visual in the video maximum staying power in spite of or perhaps because of the quick cutting, the video, in essence, becoming as delirious as one of Dark’s hardcore features.
Besides the voodoo connections with Sex Freaks and Flesh, there are a few other parallels that can be drawn between the “Bar-X” video and the challenging hardcore experiments Dark was doing at the time, Snake Pit being the film most closely linked to the Melvins video. One of Dark’s most abstract works, the extremely loose “narrative” of Snake Pit is structured around a back alley dice game that also includes masks and the rubber skeleton figures and bones seen during the Melvins’ railroad track card game in the “Bar-X” video. A reoccurring visual in the music video is a derby wearing man dancing in a black and white suit highly reminiscent of “Hatman”, the main “protagonist” in Snake Pit. The biggest visual tie-in however between Snake Pit and the “Bar-X” video is performer Roxanne Hall. One of Dark’s innovations with Snake Pit was his breaking of the fourth wall and bookending the sex scenes with interviews with the performers. Going far and beyond the cliché casting couch Q&A’s, Dark, who himself has a degree in psychology and developed his series of questions with a psychologist, interrogates his performers on a variety on existential and often uncomfortable topics such as the nature of evil and what frightens them. Some of the performers play coy, others are noticeably confused while a select few are worryingly candid. Hall’s was the concluding segment in Snake Pit and the physical intensity of her scene immediately gave Dark another infamous title but it was Hall’s interview that really raised eyebrows with the UK-based performer telling the camera “I really want to go to Hell. The reason why is because I believe in destiny. I believe I’m destined to go to Hell and I believe I’m destined to be burned, to be tortured, to be humiliated for the rest of eternity.” Hall’s final words in the film being “The one thing that I fear above all is myself, the reason why is because one day I know I’m going to end up pushing it too far because I am still at the experimental stage. I like knives, I like to be cut, I like to be choked. I like weird sex. I like it rough and I know one of these days I’ll end up dying with a smile on my face.”
One of the very first images seen in the “Bar-X” video is a very quick shot of Hall in a bathtub quickly followed-up with a flash cut of a close-up of worms. An extended cut of the video was prepared for play in, of all places, European nightclubs, wherein Hall is revealed to not only be covered with live worms inside the tub but drinking the bathwater as well. Talking to Psychotronic Video in 1997, Dark explained his obsession with the image saying “That was a shot I’d been wanting to get for two fucking years. I just liked the idea of a live girl eaten by worms as if she were dead. She’s sort of alive and dead at once. It was also important that she’s in a bathtub with these worms and she’s drinking from her own water… I was very happy with her work, too. Why did she do it for me after Snake Pit? Oh, this Melvins thing wasn’t porno stuff. Besides, I didn’t push her too hard in this video”.[iii] Dark’s remarks on Hall working with him after Snake Pit and not “pushing” her too hard in the Melvins video stem from the extended break Hall would take from the adult business following Snake Pit. Regarding Hall’s interview and ensuing sex scene in Snake Pit, Dark told Psychotronic “I brought up too many fucked up things out of her fucked up head. She did anything. We were just moving her through her psychological landscape and she just overloaded… went crazy”.[iv] Hall joked to Hustler in a piece promoting the “Bar-X” video, a piece which also featured Osborne surrounded by nude devil women, “This is a lot easier than the work I normally do”[v] and was quoted in the same Psychotronic piece that “Snake Pit seemed as good as place as any to start a vacation.”[vi]
The video continued to inspire Dark after the fact as he subliminally inserted various clips of the video in his following feature Shocking Truth which also took the interview concept of Snake Pit further and featured adult performer Star Chandler painted red head-to-toe like the devil-women in the Hustler shot with Osborne. A scene in Shocking Truth also features some wall decoration that is quite similar to the demented flower artwork on the Stag album cover. Dark would continue to direct hardcore for another two years before bowing out of the adult industry in 1998. It was however after working with the Melvins that Dark made the decision to further explore the music video route and reinvented himself a third time, becoming a highly prolific and in-demand name in music videos working with wide variety names ranging from hip-hop legends Onyx and Snoop Dogg to some of the biggest pop stars of the late ’90s and early 2000s like Britney Spears, Vitamin C, and Mandy Moore which of course led to Dark’s hardcore past being brought up on more than one occasion by mainstream publications during this time. Dark would eventually find himself in the director’s chair of all things, See No Evil (2006), the first production from WWE films starring professional wrestler and now small-town mayor Glenn Jacobs, better known as Kane. The Melvins forged ahead on the same path they’d been taking since their formation following the collaboration with Dark, their 1997 follow-up to Stag, Honky, being an even more challenging and experimental affair and the band continues to amaze and bewilder to this day with every new album, tour, line-up tweak, really virtually every activity the band engages in, even entering the experimental film genre in 2020 with A Walk With Love and Death. Although the “Bar-X the Rocking M” video would be the only time the Melvins and Dark would work together, the resulting two minutes and change remains a curious and essential piece of niche media from a seemingly too good to be a true collaboration between masters of subversive sight and sound.
[i]The Rialo Report. “Greg Dark: ‘Porn is Dead. Long Live the Dark Bros.’” Podcast 71. https://www.therialtoreport.com/2017/08/13/greg-dark/. 2017.
[ii]Thomas, Bryan. Filmmaker Gregory Dark, his “Fallen Angels” and the Other Side of Hollywood. http://nightflight.com/filmmaker-gregory-dark-his-fallen-angels-and-the-other-side-of-hollywood/. 2016.
[iii][iv][v]Gregory Hippolype (aka Brown/Dark). Psychotronic Video 26. 1997.
[vi]Gregory Dark Brings Adult Filth to Rock Video. Hustler. 1996.